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The 'Cannonball Run' Cast: Totally Awesome, Or Godawful?

Entertainment | February 28, 2019

Three for the road: Dean Martin, Roger Moore, and Burt Reynolds in 'The Cannonball Run' (1981). Source: IMDB

The 1981 film The Cannonball Run's cast list featured Burt Reynolds, Farrah Fawcett, Roger Moore, Jamie Farr, Peter Fonda, Terry Bradshaw, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Dom DeLuise. To put that another way: Bandit (from Smokey & The Bandit), a Charlie's Angel, James Bond, Klinger from M*A*S*H, Captain America from Easy Rider, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, 2/5 of the Rat Pack, and, well, Dom DeLuise. Throw in a young Jackie Chan, a young Adrienne Barbeau, country star Mel Tillis, Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, Valerie Perrine, Bianca Jagger, and crusty Jack Elam and you've got the Cannonball Run cast list just about filled out. In the director's chair, you had Hal Needham, a former stuntman who really liked making movies where fast cars fly through the air.

What a smorgasbord of celebrity. What a rogues' gallery. What a dog's breakfast of Hollywood egos. With a cast list like that, the risk of disaster was high. Too many personalities, too much zaniness, too much partying. Could they follow a script? Wait, was there a script?

Yes, there was a script.

It's important to realize is that, at the time of The Cannonball Run, Burt Reynolds and Farrah Fawcett were at the height of their powers. Burt was just about the coolest dude in Hollywood, a handsome leading man with a devilish charm and a virile mustache, a bankable star of comedies and dramas, while Farrah Fawcett was the '70s swimsuit poster girl with hair that was the envy of every woman in America. Even if Terry Bradshaw couldn't act, Dean Martin and Sammy weren't going to take this seriously, Peter Fonda was going to be weird, Roger Moore might not be funny to Americans, Dom DeLuise would ruin takes just to make Burt laugh -- none of that turned out to be a problem. The Cannonball Run was an incredibly fun movie in 1981, and it holds up today.

Well, maybe that needs to be qualified: The Cannonball Run was incredibly fun then and holds up today assuming you like movies like The Cannonball Run. It's stating the obvious, but it's helpful to note that The Cannonball Run never had a chance with critics.

Critics Hated Cannonball Run; Audiences Didn't Care

Left: Theatrical poster of 'The Cannonball Run' by Drew Struzan, 1981. Right: Dom DeLuise as Captain Chaos. Source: IMDB

Roger Ebert attacked the cast: "It's like a cattle call. It's like an Actor's Guild picket line. It's like Hollywood Squares on Wheels. Some of the actors are talented, some are not, but they look equally awful in this movie. ... This isn't a cast, it's the answer to a double acrostic." Ebert gave it one-half star out of four, arguing that "it's possible to bring some sense of style and humor even to grade-zilch material [but] this movie doesn't even seem to be trying."

"It's rather like trying to keep track of a turtle race in which all of the contestants have been wildly souped-up and each persists in speeding off in a different direction," wrote the esteemed critic Vincent Canby in The New York Times. "Don't bother to see it unless you're already hooked on the genre."

Gene Siskel called The Cannonball Run "truly stupid," and Gary Arnold of the Washington Post said it was "an aggressive shambles, the latest exercise in amateurism from facetious professionals."

All very clever put-downs, but audiences weren't discouraged. Worldwide, The Cannonball Run grossed over $100 million, a good return on a film that cost less than $20 million to make. It was the sixth-biggest movie of 1981.

There Really Was A 'Cannonball Run'. Five Of Them, Actually

Brock Yates (right) poses with his Cannonball Run-winning Ferrari. Source: (autoevolution.com)

The storyline of The Cannonball Run is based (loosely) on the "Cannonball Baker Sea To Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash" an actual coast-to-coast race that was held five times in the ‘70s. It was the brainchild of Brock Yates, who was executive editor of Car & Driver and a pit reporter for NASCAR. The 1971 race started at the Red Ball Garage on 31st Street in New York City (later Connecticut) and ended at the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach in Los Angeles, California. Surprisingly, for a race of that magnitude, the rules were simple: "All competitors will drive any vehicle of their choosing, over any route, at any speed they judge practical, between the starting point and destination. The competitor finishing with the lowest elapsed time is the winner." The Cannonball Run took on a quasi-political angle when, in 1973, a 55-mile per hour speed limit was imposed on all U.S. highways, ostensibly to mitigate the oil crisis. That was the ultimate bummer for Cannonball Run types, who felt the need for speed at all times.

Although the May 1971 event is considered the first Cannonball Run, there was just one team in the race -- Yates' team -- so perhaps it's more accurate to describe it as an exhibition. The Cannonball Run was held four more times: November 1971, November 1972, April 1975, and April 1979. That last race established the record time for official Cannonball Runs at 32 hours and 51 minutes; the record still stands as there has not been an official Cannonball Run in the four decades since.

In addition to inventing the race, Yates also wrote the screenplay for The Cannonball Run.

'The Cannonball Run' Made Reynolds The Highest-Paid Actor In Hollywood

Burt Reynolds as Lewis Medlock in Deliverance. Source: (ultimatemovierankings.com)

Burt Reynolds put in a total of about one month’s worth of filming for The Cannonball Run and pocketed a then-staggering $5 million for his performance. One month doesn’t sound like a very long time to shoot a movie but in fact, most of the rest of the cast only put in a couple of days.  With the big fat payday for his role in The Cannonball Run, Burt Reynolds had officially become the highest earning Hollywood movie star.

Hijinks With Handsome Burt And Chubby Dom

Reynolds and DeLuise in 'The Cannonball Run.' Source: IMDB

Burt Reynolds portrayed J.J. McClure who, with his partner in crime, Victor Prinzi (Dom DeLuise), drove a souped-up Dodge ambulance in The Cannonball Run race and provided much of the comic relief. Reynolds had established himself in macho roles in '60s TV dramas like Gunsmoke, Riverboat, and Hawk, which was his own series. After his career took off, he was cast in a few films including Navajo Joe (1966), 100 Rifles (1969) and Sam Whiskey (1969). His breakthrough role, though, was when he was cast as Lewis Medlock in the backwoods nightmare flick, Deliverance (1972).

Reynolds' true strength wasn't discovered until the mid-'70s, when he began starring in comedies and action comedies, the big one being Smokey And The Bandit (also directed by Hal Needham) in 1977. In The Cannonball Run, Reynolds' character makes reference to Smokey And The Bandit with the line “What about a black Trans-Am? No, that’s already been done."

Dom DeLuise joined Reynolds in Smokey And The Bandit II (1980), establishing a comedic rapport -- the debonair daredevil and the frantic fat guy -- that they carried into The Cannonball Run.

Dom DeLuise Also Played Captain Chaos

Dom DeLuise as Captain Chaos in Cannonball Run. Source: (miskaengstrom.wordpress.com)

Naturally funny, DeLuise could turn any line into a punchline. In The Cannonball Run, DeLuise portrayed Victor Prinzi and his alter ego, Captain Chaos. Captain Chaos was a demented, would-be superhero, who was quite obviously just Prinzi in a mask and cape, who would show up to save the day (exclaiming "DA-DA-DUM!") but usually made things worse.  The character of Victor was very meek while Captain Chaos was the polar opposite!

DeLuise enjoyed a long association with Mel Brooks and appeared in many of his films. Like several other actors in The Cannonball Run, he and Burt Reynolds were personal friends who always worked well together both on screen and off.  

Roger Moore Played Seymour Goldfarb, Who Played Roger Moore

Roger Moore in Cannonball Run. Source: (bondsuits.com)

Roger Moore was cast as Seymour Goldfarb, Jr. in The Cannonball Run. In a strange meta-portrayal, Moore's Goldfarb constantly identifies himself as actor Roger Moore -- after all, he looks just like him. The car Goldfarb drives in the race displays the UK license plate No. 6633 PP, exactly the same one in the Bond films Goldfinger and Thunderball. The only time Moore’s character is referred to as Seymour in the film is by his mother (Milly Picone). Needless to say, Moore was very believable in this role since James Bond already had quite a following. Cannonball Run was released in 1981 very close to the time Moore’s James Bond film (also in 1981), For Your Eyes Only was released -- and the zany race movie did better at the box office than the spy flick.

After finding out that Frank Sinatra had been cast in a sequel to The Cannonball Run, Roger Moore reportedly regretted turning down the chance to reprise his role.


Farrah Fawcett Was Beauty

Farrah Fawcett as photographer, Pamela Glover. Source: (cineplex.com)

Farrah Fawcett portrayed a photographer in The Cannonball Run named Pamela Glover, who also happens to be a tree-loving environmentalist. J.J. calls her “Beauty” in the movie and beautiful she was. Fawcett had enjoyed a very successful modeling and television career at that point. She was very well known for her roles on Charlie’s Angels, even though it was short-lived, and The Six Million Dollar Man.

Pamela starts off with Mr. Foyt, a spoilsport who is attempting to stop the race. When Pamela asks whether the competitors are terrorists, Foyt replies, “Terrorists my dimpled ass! These people make terrorists look like the Sisters of Charity! These guys are Cannonballers!” Pamela replies, “What is that? A bowling team?” She wasn’t known for being the sharpest tool in the shed. Despite the success of the film, Fawcett was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actress.


Sadly, The Production Wasn't All Fun And Games

Heidi von Beltz. Source: (niceimgro.pw)

On June 25, 1980, a 24-year-old stuntwoman named Heidi von Beltz was critically injured in a terrible stunt gone wrong during the production of The Cannonball Run. The worst part is that she was a stand-in for the intended stuntwoman who was called away on a family emergency. The stunt was to have been an easy one, but unfortunately, the car Heidi was riding in was riddled with mechanical problems and had no seatbelts. Heidi broke her neck in the accident which left her a quadruplegic.


Two Brat-Packers Played Fake Ragged Priests

Sammy Davis, Jr. and Dean Martin as hard-drinking priests. Source: IMDB

Each racing team has a gimmick to help them elude or deter the highway police. Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. as race car driver Jamie Blake and scam artist Morris Fenderbaum, are disguised as Catholic priests -- what cop would give a priest a speeding ticket? -- though the ruse isn't helped by their choice of car, a red Ferrari 308 GTS. They also seem to drink a lot, for priests.

American Audiences Met Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan and Michael Hui. Source: IMDB

Jackie Chan and Michael Hui are introduced on a talk show in the opening of the film, as drivers of a Subaru GL full of gadgets (although the credits mistakenly identify them as "Mitsubishi Driver(s)." The pair exchange subtitled dialogue that intentionally doesn't translate well, such as Chan's complaint that "This infrared is the cat's *ss." Is that a bad thing or a good thing?

Mel Tillis and Terry Bradshaw are Mel and Terry, a couple of good ol' boys driving a thinly-disguised Chevrolet Malibu NASCAR Grand National race car. 

Cops Were Powerless Against Adrienne Barbeau

Adrienne Barbeau doing her thing as Tara Buckman leans in from the passenger seat. Source: IMDB

Adrienne Barbeau and Tara Buckman as Marcie Thatcher and Jill Rivers, satin-Spandex-clad vixens in a black Lamborghini Countach. Their method of avoiding being busted by highway patrolmen is to act polite and friendly while displaying copious cleavage. Unsurprisingly, this works every time.

Valerie Perrine Wasn't Powerless Against Adrienne Barbeau

Valerie Perrine in 'Cannonball Run.' Source: IMDB

Well -- Barbeau and Buckman's routine works on all highway patrolmen. It fails when they're pulled over by a patrolwoman who sports her own prominent cleavage (which she presumably uses to subdue leadfoots). The lady cop was played by Valerie Perrine, who'd established herself in two Superman movies.

Peter Fonda leads a biker gang, a role that was a nod not just to Easy Rider, but also the biker movie Fonda had made with Roger Corman, The Wild Angels (1966). Character actor Jack Elam played the extremely creepy Doctor Nikolas Van Helsing, who joins up with McClure.

Jamie Farr Was In All Three 'Cannonball Run' Movies. Wait, Three?

Jamie Farr as the Sheik in 'The Cannonball Run.' Source: IMDB

Jamie Farr played Sheik Abdul ben Falafel, a wealthy Arabian potentate who drives a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and is determined to win the race, even if he has to buy it. Bianca Jagger appears (briefly) as his sister. The Sheik holds the distinction of being the only character who appears in all three Cannonball Run films -- yes, there were three of them. The second, Cannonball Run II (1984), was successful as sequels go. The third Cannonball Run movie was called Speed Zone (or Cannonball Fever, 1989) and its cast was headlined by John Candy, Donna Dixon, Matt Frewer, Tim Matheson and Joe Flaherty. Who knew, right?

Will 'The Cannonball Run' Be Remade? Would We Even Want That?

All-star cast of Cannonball Run. Source: (cineplex.com)

Warner Bros. has since acquired the rights to The Cannonball Run, and there has long been talk of a remake being in the works. Many of the details are still up in the air but suffice it to say that there will never be another cast that matches the collective talent of the original Cannonball Run released in 1981. According to some reports, the new film won’t be mimicking the stunts from the original Cannonball Run. They just don’t make em’ like this anymore!

Tags: 1980s Movies | Adrienne Barbeau | Burt Reynolds | Cast Lists From Popular Movies | Celebrities In The 1980s | Dean Martin | Dom DeLuise | Farrah Fawcett | Hal Needham | Jack Elam | Jackie Chan | Jamie Farr | Movies In The 1980s | Roger Moore | Sammy Davis, Jr. | Terry Bradshaw | The 1980s | The Cannonball Run

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.